U.S. Open 2019: Can Gary Woodland keep this ride going?

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 16: Gary Woodland of the United States greets fans as he walks off the 14th hole during the final round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 16, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 16: Gary Woodland of the United States greets fans as he walks off the 14th hole during the final round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 16, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images) /

Gary Woodland enjoyed the greatest moment of his career when he won the U.S. Open on Sunday. How long will he be able to ride this momentum?

Does his victory at the U.S. Open represent the first we hear of Gary Woodland or the last?

It’s an intriguing question given his background, for Woodland, at age 35, is hardly a golf prodigy. He only came to the game in his late teens and early 20s after failing at his first two loves, baseball and basketball, during his freshman year at Washburn University in his hometown of Topeka, Ks.

He transferred to the University of Kansas just to give golf a stab and proved good enough to make the team, which at KU isn’t necessarily saying much.

Turning pro after graduating in 2007, Woodland spent two seasons in the tour’s minor leagues before earning his Tour card. Flunking out in 2010, he returned to Q-school and regained his privileges, finally making a splash at the 2011 Bob Hope Classic, where he lost a playoff to Jhonny Vegas.

He picked up his first title two months later at the Transitions (today known as the Valspar Championship), finishing the year with $3.4 million in earnings. In 2013 he won for a second time at Reno-Tahoe. His third, and until Sunday his most memorable win, came at the 2018 Waste Management Phoenix Open.

But what Woodland had been unable to do, at least until recently, was compete on the game’s largest and richest stages, the majors. Until last summer’s PGA Championship, he had started 27 majors, never finishing top 10 and only twice making the top 20.

Offset that with eight missed cuts and you begin to understand why, despite his obvious raw power, fans wondered whether Woodland would ever break out of the pack of mediocrity.

It has only been within the past year that Woodland’s major switch has flipped. At the 2018 PGA, his seventh appearance in that field, he held the 36-hole lead and eventually tied for sixth. His seventh Masters appearance this past April was nothing special – a tie for 32nd – but Woodland followed it with a tie for eighth at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.

That means that following a string of 27 major appearances without a top 10, Woodland now has three – one of them a victory – in his last four starts.

There are instances of 35-year-olds suddenly blossoming on tour, but they are rare. Since 2011, Woodland is the 26th different individual to win at least one men’s major championship. The average age of those 26 at the time of their first major victory? It was 30. Seven were 25 or younger.

Only five were older than Woodland, and in the cases of three of those five – Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Darren Clarke —  the major title represented more of a capstone achievement to a solid career than a mere happenstance.

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Perhaps the closest thing to a recent parallel to Woodland is the career of Jason Dufner, who was 36 when he broke through at the 2013 PGA. At the time, Dufner had two tour victories to his credit, one fewer than Woodland had when the Open began. He has since added two more, but he has hardly attained star status.

One of the few proximate parallels to Gary Woodland might be one of the competitors who chased him to the finish line this weekend, Francesco Molinari. Like Woodland, Molinari is in his mid 30s. His game is also similar to Woodland’s emphasizing raw power.

Since Molinari has spent most of his time on the European tour, comparisons of his record to Woodland’s may not reveal much. Suffice it to say that he won for the first time on the PGA Tour last July, followed it with his British Open win, and added this March’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The difference is that in Europe, Molinari has been a recognizable figure, if not a megastar, for close to a decade. Not counting the Open, he has five European tour titles.

So what’s the answer to the question? Is this U.S. Open victory a breakthrough for Woodland? Or, given that golf careers often plateau in the mid 30s and begin to descend soon after, is it merely one mid-career shining moment?

Woodland’s recent major championship successes suggest the former may be possible. If so, he’s the type of player who can give the tour’s toughest a fight, a bomber unafraid of confronting the long game that seems to dominate the present tour.

The difficulty in actually predicting that lies in the fact that so few current stars follow anything close to Woodland’s career path. By college, most had long since given up baseball or basketball to focus on golf, and they sure didn’t choose to focus on it in Kansas.

Next. Gary Woodland wins one for the good guys. dark

On the other hand, they also probably wouldn’t have had the gumption to stick with their dream through 27 successive inconspicuous major tournament showings. That’s what will separate Gary Woodland from the pack as he continues to chase his dreams, new and old.